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Rickety bridges to the past



I'm reluctant to prolong this discussion (in particular I don't want to
encourage the irrepressible J. S. Farley), but may I offer a small
anecdote?

Back in the 1970s I was trying to discover the details about Robert
Browning's funeral (1889 in Westminster Abbey). One of the best sources
was an account in *The Times* (of London), which I had looked at briefly
several years before. But at the Library of Congress, I was told that *The
Times* was now available only on microfilm, and the film (which was
produced under the auspices of *The Times* itself) displayed a defective
image of that page--a tear in the original or something of that sort. "No
problem," I thought: "I'll look at the bound volumes of *The Times* at the
University of Maryland [where I teach]."

When I walked into the Maryland stacks, there were rows of empty shelves
where *The Times* had once been. When I asked a librarian about it, she
said, "Oh, we moved those volumes out last week, We now have the
microfilm."

It was of course the same microfilm as I had seen at the LC.

Those who extoll microfilm as the perfect instrument of preservation
should ponder this. Much of the microfilming in the past has been done to
very low standards: if you look at any of the best-known newspaper films,
you will see that there has been no attempt to supplement defective copies
by finding better copies elsewhere. Instead, when a page is missing or
unreadable, there will often be a cheery sign telling you that "The best
copy available was photographed," which is palpably untrue.

So virtually all libraries in the world now hold the same imperfect
microfilm sets, while the originals have been pulped. It reminds me of
what agronomists call monoculture: planting a single, ubiquitous crop that
becomes increasingly susceptible to disease.

William S. Peterson


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